Turning Dandelions into Car Tires

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Anyone taking auto mechanic courses or training to become an auto technician knows that tire wear is a reoccurring issue for vehicle-owners – although it’s not always easy to pinpoint what’s caused the tires to degrade. Wear and tear can come from a surprising number of sources, including improper air pressure, balance issues, bent wheels, and misalignment.

An essential part of auto-care and an enormous global industry, tire production in the US alone is anticipated to hit the $20 billion mark by 2017. We’ve made tremendous strides in formulating synthetic alternatives, but in order to perform well, tires still need to contain 10-40 percent real, natural rubber. As any good auto mechanic knows, only real rubber can sustain its flexibility in low temperatures and resist cracks over the long term.

And now, the global demand for natural rubber is getting an unexpected boost from a new natural source: dandelions!

Home-Grown Rubber

Typically, North America gets its natural rubber supply from plantations in Southeast Asia – mostly Thailand, China, and Indonesia. But as demand continues to grow, manufacturers like Michelin and Pirelli are worried that these countries won’t have the acreage to meet supply requirements. Both Europeans and Americans are turning to the dandelion as a means of growing rubber closer to home and better controlling rising import costs.

How Do Dandelions Become Tires?

Well, the precise formula is an industry-guarded secret for now. But, the process apparently involves grinding the taproots into pulp with the addition of some water. Further processing steps yield solid blocks of natural rubber. US researchers are pursuing genetic modification combined with natural breeding to get the most out of dandelion crops – but some of the challenges facing farmers are a little less high-tech. It turns out that dandelion seeds have all kinds of natural predators, including mice, worms, and ants. Part of the struggle has been to figure out how to protect the seeds long enough to grow a good-sized harvest. Researchers are experimenting with coating the seeds in clay, and mixing in “distractor” grains to tempt predators away from the dandelions.

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Hitting the Road Soon

American project leaders estimate that by 2020, they’ll have completed their research and will be ready to distribute a detailed how-to guide to aspiring dandelion farmers across the US.  The guide will provide a business plan and instructions on how to fertilize, irrigate, and harvest dandelion crops. And while manufacturers aren’t looking to replace traditional natural sources, they are hopeful that dandelions will provide a complementary, back-up source. Apparently, North American farmers are completely on board with the plan, with many operations anxious to launch their own dandelion growing projects.

Who knows – before you know it, you too could be burning dandelion rubber!

What industry innovations do you think will impact the field of auto repair most in the years ahead?

Check out this short video to find out more about the potential for dandelion rubber:

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